Sunday 14 August 2011

Project Nim review (The List, Issue 686)

It’s not surprising that director James Marsh has chosen to follow his Oscar-winning 2008 documentary Man On Wire by taking an approach often favoured by bands following up a hit album: don’t mess with the formula, just try and do the same thing again, but better. What is surprising, considering how good his previous film was, is how close Marsh comes to bettering it with Project Nim.

The titular project was an ill-conceived experiment in which Columbia University Behavioural Psychologist Herb Terrace took a baby chimp – Nim – and convinced Stephanie LaFarge, one of his ex-girlfriends, now married with children, to take the chimp into her home, and treat Nim as one of the family. ‘Only in the 70s,’ is how one interview subject aptly describes it. The theoretical aim was to teach Nim to communicate through sign language, but in practice the experiment was doomed from the start, and, of course, it was Nim who paid the highest cost.

Marsh’s film plays out through detailed interviews with everyone involved, alongside some amazing archive footage and dramatically charged reconstructions. It’s a very similar filmmaking approach to Man On Wire, but Marsh makes up for playing it safe stylistically by plumbing the subject’s thematic depths to pull out a deeply affecting story. Marsh’s storytelling instincts are good; he carefully withholds information to ensure viewers keep asking their own questions about the motivations of the projects’ architects. This is an animal story that’s populated by a fascinating cast of humans, and Marsh successfully draws out their considered and sometimes fundamentally contradictory opinions about what they did and were trying to achieve. What emerges is both a heartbreaking tale of the mistreatment of one ‘dumb animal’ and a complex meditation on the very best and worst aspects of human nature.

Project Nim is in cinemas on selected release now. This review originally published in The List magazine.
You can also listen to me reviewing Project Nim on BBC Movie Cafe here.

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